Algeria had enjoyed at the time of my visit less than a decade of independence. People pointed to bullet-scarred walls with pride. The government was the secular National Liberation Front – the Islamic fundamentalists were studying scripture instead of seeking to take power. In several ways, the revolution was evident even to the casual traveler; the contrast with Morocco was inescapable. Instead of cramped rooms where boys crowded on benches and chanted Koranic verses all day, there were many small, modern schools. Health clinics, though decidedly modest, operated even in small towns. When a beggar approached the tourist seeking a handout, a practice approved by Islam, others sometimes stepped up to say that no one needed to beg, that the NLF provided for all.
We set out eastward from Oran, taking a bus to the edge of town and then seeking to hitchhike the coastal road to Roman ruins in Cherchell and on to Algiers. The fact that we caught a few rides only took us into the deep countryside where we became stranded. In the U.S.A. hitchhiking, now all but extinguished, was fairly efficient back then, but along this particular route we saw only a horsecart every twenty minutes or so, a car or truck once or twice an hour. We were in a rural spot, well out of any town, yet somehow a crowd of children gathered from here and there once they had heard about the novel attraction. They hunkered down just across from us and gazed with satisfaction, thinking perhaps of how their friends would be impressed by their encounter with such exotic characters. When we opened a backpack to get a drink of water, the crowd stirred in excited interest; boys craned their necks to learn as many of our secrets as they might.
Patricia felt a desire to pee. There was no cover for a considerable distance, and the children would never have let one of us out of sight in any event. We waited. In the distance a man on a donkey appeared, not a promising figure from our point of view. He approached and trundled by with hardly a glance our way.
After several hours, a pickup truck pulled over, the window rolled down, “Est-ce que vous êtes americaines?” “Oui, oui.” The window rolled back up and the care accelerated. Wondering if the driver was a critic of American foreign policy, we waited on. After ten minutes the car reappeared, the window opened, and through came a hand with an old oversize American banknote, what proved to be a 1907 five dollar bill. “An American army soldier gave this to my grandfather. Take it, you can use it perhaps, but you must write me a postcard from America.” And off he sped.
We were beginning to consider the possibility of sleeping rough by the roadside, and by now we both wanted to pee. Suddenly, of all things, an empty taxi appeared, though heading in the wrong direction. We remembered a village named Khadra only a few miles back, so we hailed the cab and asked to be taken there, figuring we could catch some sort of bus. The town was small, lacking a hotel or a real restaurant, but there was a small café which, we thought, meant a likely w.c. We went in and inquired and the man behind the counter gestured toward a door. A so-called “Arab toilet” would have been welcome indeed, but, when the door was opened, it revealed only the small back yard of the café which people clearly used as a latrine.
Thrown into the street, we had by now gathered a crowd of followers even larger than that out in the countryside. A local madman wandered by and they tried to set him on us, and might have enjoyed a more amusing spectacle than the lot out on the highway, but we had by that time found an informant who told us that no bus would leave until five the next morning. We were kindly offered the option of sleeping on board the bus. This seemed satisfactory, though the urination problem was becoming urgent.
Just then, a car drove up. The local schoolteacher had heard of our arrival and had come to offer us immediate relief and hospitality. Though we were backpackers, we were foreigners who knew something of the world, and he considered himself unfairly stranded in this village, cut off from the modern culture his education had led him to prize, even while he remained rooted in certain traditional Maghrebi values. To us he meant relief (he had running water, even), as well as dinner, and a bed.
Later that evening, as his wife brought steaming tajines from the kitchen and he urged us to eat more and more, we tried to be civil by exchanging a few words with her. “No,” he said, “Don’t bother with her, she is ignorant. She doesn’t know French, she can’t read at all. Forget her.” We imagined that she and the children would share whatever we failed to consume and found the thought no spur to appetite.
The following morning, the night watchman in a ragged djellaba, who carried a rusty old blunderbuss older even than himself, tapped on the window to awaken us, and we caught the five o’clock bus for Mohammedia from which one might board the main line of the train system to Algiers. It was most unlikely we would have another opportunity to see the mosaics at Cherchell.